Teplitski, a member of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and UF’s Genetics Institute, notes that less than 1 percent of supermarket produce contains salmonella or E. coli and the contamination becomes a problem only when this produce contaminates other food, or is consumed raw.

“The chances of encountering it are very low,” he said. “Even so, the producers are not satisfied with less than 1 percent. They want to have 0 percent.”

The study, funded by the Florida Tomato Committee and Center for Produce Safety, began after Teplitski said his research team noticed that oblong Roma tomatoes seemed more often linked to salmonella than round varieties, and wondered if this was more than coincidence.

The researchers inserted “reporter” salmonella into tomatoes of varying maturity and type so they could see how the gene would react. The reporter salmonella emit a fluorescent light as they multiply inside the tomato. That fluorescence showed researchers salmonella distinguishes between tomato varieties and among fruit of varying ripeness.

Team member and UF postdoctoral researcher Jason Noel is now screening a greenhouse full of tomato varieties to give growers information about which are most resistant to salmonella contamination. They also plan to look at field irrigation and fertilization practices, to see if they affect produce safety.

The team also includes former UF undergraduate student Ali Alagely, Nabil Arrach of the Vaccine Research Institute of San Diego and Michael McClelland of the University of California, Irvine.